Picture yourself at the beach. Toes in the sand, book in one hand, a beverage in the other. Your eyes gaze upon the Atlantic horizon lazily watching the rolling waves when suddenly a dorsal fin briefly arching above the water catches your attention. You set your gaze on where you think it will pop up next. It does. The sight makes you sit up straighter and fills you with a child-like spirit of excitement. Spotting a wild dolphin feels like a gift.
I live on a barrier island outside of Charleston, S.C., so I get to see the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins more often than most folks. That, and being fortunate to do research with them. I never tire of seeing them. They are uplifting, even inspiring. This self-aware, high intelligent and curious species has been revered for centuries. And if you have ever had the experience of being up close to that beguiling face from a dock or a boat, then you know the allure.
It doesn’t matter if you live seaside or are landlocked or mountain high, we all think we know dolphins from what’s been portrayed on television and in the movies. And we want that “Flipper” experience. But remember, Flipper was one of several trained dolphins in a human care facility. This is very different from a wild dolphin.
First, wild dolphins are just that – wild. They are powerful animals, protective of their young and able to cause injury with a swipe from their tail or a bite. That smile can be deceptive. Dolphins can get irritated, even angry, when you pester them or get too close.
Second, luring a dolphin to your boat or dock can cause them harm. You might want to toss food to a nearby dolphin. It’s only this one small bite, what harm can it do, you wonder? The answer is—a lot. Multiply that one bite of food times the thousands of people who think the same thing. Feeding encourages dolphins to beg. This simple act of so-called kindness is creating a generation of beggars.
Instead of foraging and hunting, dolphins are seeking out human handouts and this leads to physical injuries from boat strikes and fishing lines, not to mention poor nutrition. If you want the up-close and personal experience, go to the many facilities with dolphins trained to interact with humans, willingly and importantly, safely.
Finally, nearly half of the dolphins residing year round in Charleston’s estuarine waters are sick. Shocking, but true, according to ongoing research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Further study seeks to answer the questions of what the contaminants are and where the source is. But the bottom line is we are becoming their greatest threat.
So what can we do to help our beloved dolphins? Let wild be wild. It is what’s best for them and what’s best for us. This way we can all continue to enjoy that exuberant feeling dolphins elicit from us for many, many seaside visits to come!
And here’s a little secret that all naturalists around here know. The next time you’re out on the water boating, paddle boarding, kayaking…the best way to get animals to play with you is to remain still and quiet. Because of a dolphin’s curious nature, they’ll likely come close or ride the wake of your boat. Enjoy the moment without feeling the need to touch or feed. I assure you the experience will be one of awe and wonder—one you’ll cherish forever.
Mary Alice Monroe is a New York Times bestselling, award-winning author and a devoted conservationist. Her latest bestseller, “The Summer Girls,” is in stores now. Visit her at www.maryalicemonroe.com.